Magical Theory and Practice: Part 1

This being the first part of a discussion on the creation of magical systems in fantasy. 

I usually answer these first three questions when I start creating a magic system:  who can use magic, where the magic comes from, and the world’s views on magic.  These can help define your setting and at least some of the major conflicts your characters may encounter.  Please note that you are not limited to the questions listed here.  You are welcome and highly encouraged to come up with more questions to answer, to continue to expand the scope of your inquiries.  The more questions to ask and subsequently answer, the more complete and well-knit your world will be.

WHO CAN USE MAGIC?

Is magic something that can be learned through study, like music or mathematics?

Can anyone learn to use it?

Is it something that is bred into people, an ability that can only be accessed by those of the right bloodline?

Or is it a mixture of the two, something that can be learned, but those who possess the blood-right have an easier time learning it or are stronger than those without the natural talent?

Is magic limited to one type of person, caste, or species?

Fantasy is often accused of being elitist due to the birthright theme that manifests in most fantasy, be it regarding the use of magic or the right of kings to rule.  In reality, fantasy is more democratic than that, or can be, depending on who can use magic.  You can get into some interesting character creation and definition of cultures or politics by answering this question.

WHERE DOES MAGIC COME FROM?

Is it a power that comes from within or without?

Does a mage generate his or her power from within themselves or do they draw on other forces/objects/beings/planes of existence for that power?

Or is a mixture of the two?

Can a mage generate a certain level of power themselves, but, after a certain point do they need to pool resources with other mages to fuel larger spells, or call on the assistance of demons or magical artifacts?

What is the amount of magic that an individual can call upon?

What are the limits?

What imposes those limits?  Nature?  Laws?  Ethics?  Availability of material?  A certain “quota” that cannot be bypassed?

Is the magical energy they are drawing on renewable?

Does it come from generated life-force, or is it like coal or oil, a limited natural resource that is fast being used up?

Does magic come from the heart or the mind?

Who can access what level of power…and at what cost?

The source of power is one of the most important parts of a magic system because it helps define what kind of magic can be used, what is considered black magic, white magic, neutral magic, or anything in between.  It will also help you decide how magic is learned and the tools needed to learn magic, which will be discussed in a later entry.

WHAT ARE THE WORLD’S VIEWS ON MAGIC?

Is magic something that is embraced as a great gift, or is it regarded as a curse and shunned?

Are wizards revered or are witches burned?

Do different areas, lands, people, have different views towards magic and why do they hold those views?

Is magic rare or commonplace?

What allowances, laws, rewards, and punishments are reserved for magic-users?

This can set up a whole story in and of itself.  If your character is a wizard in a land that hates magic, then he’s in for a rough time trying to deny or conceal his gift.  Conversely, if your character has no magic in a land that highly prizes it or finds it commonplace, then he will still have a rough time trying to find a job, fit in, or deal with envy and pity.  Answering this question will also help shape the cultures, politics, and even the geography of your world and the nations or people within it.  Cities that allow and revere magic may be overflowing with fantastical buildings, created and supported by magic, while those who shun magic may be confined to poorer, harsher lands with squat, functional buildings.

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4 responses to “Magical Theory and Practice: Part 1

  1. Just want to say that I liked this blog entry. It's raises some good questions about fantasy writing and what an author should look at when writing in their worlds. Magic is one of the reasons that it is taking soooo long for the Green Sword series to finish itself. Damn all the magical mayhem that world creates. Just when I think I have it flushed out another little loop appears, and I'm like…"Dammit where the hell did you come from? And why are you doing this now? Why couldn't you have shown up earlier?"

  2. Totally agree with ctongyai. I've been working on fleshing out one particular series on and off for the better part of seven years now, and little loop holes are still rearing thier ugly little heads. Makes me wonder if I'll ever get it totally smoothed out… These questions are a great way for me to start really trying to trap those loopholes, though, so thanks, Kat! I tend to focus so overmuch on character that little else gets developed. These questions are a great way for me to start addressing the areas I've been neglecting.

  3. Thank you! (I didn't know you were still working on The Green Sword series! Awesome!) Yeah, I encounter similar problems, but not as many as I'd feared since I plan out my plots more than I used to.

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